Fortuna was the Roman goddess of prosperity and luck. That would be an excellent name for any location hoping for some of that mojo to rub off. I was aware of a Fortuna in California (map), probably the largest Fortuna in the United States. It was settled in the heart of redwood country.
I’m sure it’s very nice and I’d love to go there someday and take a drive down the Avenue of the Giants. However this Twelve Mile Circle wasn’t about that particular Fortuna. Maybe I’ll circle back to that eventually. Not today.
Rather, I became fixated on the Fortuna I’d uncovered as I investigated the intricacies of what divided Divide County in North Dakota. There sat tiny Fortuna, population 22, all alone on the Great Plains (map). Let’s ride along on a little driving tour given by some random guy on YouTube, shall we?
Hmmm… there wasn’t much there, was there? A church, a gun club, a curling club, a few houses and a senior center.
Don’t be deceived. Look below the surface and every place is a geo-oddity. I myself live in the smallest self-governing county in the United States. I’m sure your little corner of the world has its own unusual geographic distinction too. Fortuna (pronounced For-Toona) was fortunate enough to have two unusual features, one created by nature and one caused by the arbitrary placements of lines by man.
We already discussed the first condition in County Divided: the Brush Lake Closed Basin. Fortuna fell barely within the eastern edge of this endorheic basin. Sandwiched between Arctic and Atlantic watersheds, water falling in Fortuna wouldn’t flow to either ocean. Instead it drained to nearby Brush Lake just over the border in Montana where its overland journey ended, trapped in a gouge carved by ancient glaciers during the last Ice Age.
The second feature was somewhat more esoteric. According to North Dakota State University, Fortuna had the distinction of having the latest sunset on the summer solstice for any town in the Lower 48 United States, at 10:03 p.m. That occurred because of a confluence of a couple of different situations. Fortuna happened to be located at the far western edge of the Central Time Zone. The zone had a nub in northwestern North Dakota that made Fortuna considerably farther west than almost any other place along the time zone edge.
The exception was a corner of west Texas east of El Paso, say, somewhere like Van Horne (map). It was just a little farther west than Fortuna. However there was a different factor that more than made up the difference: latitude. I put the points into a great circle mapper and found that Fortuna was about 1,250 miles (2,000 kilometres) farther north than Van Horne. Thus, with that large of a difference I think it would be safe to speculate that sunset happened later on the summer solstice in Fortuna’s corner of North Dakota than anywhere else in the Central Time Zone. I suppose I could also check the other three U.S. time zones in the Lower 48 for their westernmost extremes although I’m simply not that motivated. The Intertubes said it was true and I left it at that.
But Wait, You Also Get This
Fortuna had history. I hardly would have expected anything of historical significance in such a remote area. Yet, ironically its remoteness actually created its importance. Out-of-sight places made ideal locations for a variety of Cold War artifacts.
The U.S. government constructed Fortuna Air Force Station just outside of town, a radar base operating from 1952 to 1984. It was designed to track enemy aircraft and coordinate their interception should Soviets bombers have attacked the United States. The site was completely abandoned once the Cold War faded and fell away. Ghosts of North Dakota visited the old station recently and noted,
We got word that this base was to be demolished in 2013, so we set out to photograph it before it was too late… The radar dishes and domes were removed long ago, and the site has since been heavily vandalized and scavenged. The salvage rights were sold some years back and the team that did the salvage knocked holes in the walls of most of the buildings to remove boilers and scrap metal.
What does the future hold for the town of Fortuna? Perhaps something fortunate. This quadrant of North Dakota has boomed in recent years because of oil discoveries in the Bakken formation. The population of Divide County increased by more than 10% between 2010 and 2013 (the latest figures available) after decades of decline.
At the far northwestern corner of North Dakota, right up next to Canada and Montana sits a county with a curious name, Divide. It looked somewhat rectangular like many other counties on the sparsely-populated Great Plains where few natural features could take the place of arbitrary straight lines.
I’d encountered Divide County vicariously one time before without even realizing it as I researched infrequent border crossings between the United States and Canada a couple of years ago. The Noonan border station in Divide County was so lonely and isolated that it had only a single pedestrian crossing during 2011 (the most current data available at the time), although it also had motor vehicle crossings of course. This photo was actually another nearby crossing in Divide — I couldn’t fine one of Noonan — although notice the obelisk marker placed by the International Boundary Commission. I don’t know where I’m going with that. I simply liked the image and it probably looked a lot like the one at Noonan so feel free to use your imagination.
The international border probably wasn’t the divide that inspired a county’s name however, in spite of modern theories like that described by Dakota Datebook in 2007:
This time a name for the new county would be determined through a contest. The winning entry came from George Gilmore, a Williston attorney. Gilmore proposed the name Divide County. The Northern Continental Divide runs through the region. The county divides the United States from Canada. It divides North Dakota from Montana. And most importantly, the new county was a product of its division.
The part about the contest was true enough. Both Divide County and the Town of Crosby (the seat of county government) confirmed the story. It happened in 1910. Homesteaders were just then migrating into the area. There were just enough people to warrant a new county, thus dividing Divide from larger Williams County. The contest commenced, Gilmore won $5 for his efforts, and the name stuck. The preponderance of sources I consulted mentioned two divisions as the basis for the name, the divide from Williams County, and the continental divide. The notion of state and international borders inspiring a name were apparently modern contrivances.
The continental divide fascinated me more in this instance so I went into the National Map Viewer and selected the watershed layer. Notice the dark purple line that marked the continental divide. Many people see "continental divide" and think reflexively of the Great Divide that separated west from east, the Pacific drainage area from the Gulf of Mexico. This wasn’t that divide. Rather this was the Laurentian Divide or the Northern Divide that separated water bound for Hudson Bay from that heading down towards the Gulf of Mexico.
Divide County’s northeastern quadrant and its county seat at Crosby fell within the Souris River watershed, which flowed into the Assiniboine River River then to the Red River of the North into Lake Winnipeg, then to the Nelson River and finally into Hudson Bay. Divide’s southeastern quadrant flowed a long distance too albeit with a more familiar set of names, from local tributaries to the Missouri River to the Mississippi River, and then to the Gulf of Mexico.
What about that curious notation on the map? The Brush Lake Closed Basin? Indeed, the western part of Divide County flowed just a few miles farther west and barely crossed the border into Montana before stopping at Brush Lake where it remained. A good 20% of Divide wasn’t part of either side of the continental divide, it fell within an endorheic basin created at the tail-end of the last Ice Age as glaciers gouged the plains.
The buried outwash gravels and the deeper river terrace gravels are very porous and support a controlled groundwater irrigation area, as well as supplying Brush Lake with a continuous flow of water through large springs in the lake. Being in a closed basin, summer evaporation serves as a pump to keep groundwater flowing into the lake. And since evaporation only takes pure water out, the minerals leached from the glacial gravels remain dissolved in the lake and accumulate, giving the lake its distinct color.
As I mentioned in Part 1, the first installment dealt with physical post offices and this one will focus on methods of postal delivery. Both featured examples drawn primarily from the United States Postal Service’s "fun facts" page.
The Postman by Eric Gelinas, on Flickr Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)
Pack animals would seem to be an antiquated method of mail delivery. Certainly horses, mules or donkeys had their heyday up until about a century ago before being replaced unceremoniously by an upstart horseless carriage. A modern semi-truck might have around 400-450 horsepower. A draft horse would have, um, one. It didn’t take much convincing for the postal authorities to ditch their animals long ago and transport mail by mechanical means. That became a universal standard nationwide except for one incredibly inconvenient location — Arizona’s Grand Canyon, or more specifically the bottom of the Grand Canyon.
Supai, Arizona (map) would be an excellent candidate for the most remote settlement in the Lower 48 states. No roads lead there. That would be impossible. Access required a helicopter or a strenuous hike down an 8 mile (13 kilometre) trail. Nonetheless two hundred people lived in Supai, the primary town of the Havasupai Tribe as they have for at least a thousand years. They required postal services just like everyone else. Mule trains continued to be the most cost-effective method. The USPS estimated each mule hauled about 130 pounds (59 kg) of postcards, letters or packages.
This same method was also used to deliver mail to the National Park Service’s Phantom Ranch, elsewhere at the bottom of the canyon.
JW Westcott II by Lauren, on Flickr Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
Large freighters traveled regularly throughout the Great Lakes hauling grains, coal, iron ore and other commodities, as I learned from my visit to the Great Lakes Floating Maritime Museum. Mariners spent a lot of time away from home although not too far away from land. The Postal Service devised a way to get mail to these sailors as they passed through a narrow slot near the midpoint (map). The J. W. Westcott Co., established in 1874, won the contract to deliver mail to the freighters using its 45-foot boat.
Along the Detroit River, on any given day, a well-known diesel motorship brushes up against a much larger, passing vessel. A rope and bucket are lowered from the ship to the smaller boat, where messages, mail and other items are placed and raised back up. It’s the tradition called "mail in the pail" …and a legacy known as J.W. Westcott, the most reliable and dependable marine delivery service on the Great Lakes.
On June 8, 1959… the Navy submarine USS Barbero fired a guided missile carrying 3,000 letters towards the naval auxiliary air station in Mayport, Florida. Racing along at about 600 miles per hour, the guided missile traveled the more than 100 miles from the deck of the submarine off the coast of Florida to the air station in about 22 minutes… [Postmaster General] Summerfield was quoted as saying, "mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to England, to India or to Australia by guided missiles." History proved differently.
Mail in this experiment traveled as the payload within a Regulus guided missile, with the letters replacing a nuclear warhead. An example of such an imposing missile can be seen today at the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum, in New York City as presented above (and map). What could possibly go wrong with a missile-based postal delivery service during the height of the Cold War? The test worked perfectly, other than the possibility of sparking an accidental nuclear Armageddon. It wasn’t particularly cost effective either in an era when jet-powered airmail was already feasible.
The longest rural delivery route caught my attention. According to the USPS that honor went to Route 081 based out of Mangum, Oklahoma (map). I had a hard time finding more information about the service because I was an idiot and my brain converted Mangum to Magnum. I’m not sure if I had guns, big bottles of wine or a cheezy television show from the 1980’s starring Tom Selleck on my mind at the time. I had no trouble finishing my research once I put that little issue behind me though: MAN-gum.
Apparently the subject captured popular imagination as well. The story of septuagenarian Jim Ed Bull and his 187.6 mi (302 km) route that served only 240 customers appeared prominently in both Bloomberg and the NBC Nightly News in 2013. There’s no sense in me repeating it though so feel free to watch the video.
This one might have been a little bogus although I enjoyed the story. Main Street was and has been the most common street name in the United States, no argument there. Of all of the Main Streets though, one of them had to be the longest. The USPS noted that it was Main Street in Island Park, Idaho at 33 mi (53 km). However I couldn’t find an actual "Main Street" in Island Park. The entire length seemed to be signed and addressed as US Route 20 (for example). Nonetheless, Island Park claimed it had the longest occurrence (see the banner on the city’s website) and various local business repeated the mantra. It appeared to a marketing gimmick.
The city of Island Park, for all other descriptive words, is "unique" in its entirety. It was incorporated in May 1947 to meet a state law requiring businesses that serve or sell alcoholic beverages to be within incorporated towns. The city’s government at the time drew up the city’s boundaries to include all the businesses from the Last Chance area north to the Montana border that desired licenses to serve and sell alcoholic beverages. All other areas of what is now known as the Island Park Recreational area remained in Fremont County.
It was about booze. Local lodge owners cobbled together a town 33 miles long and only 500 feet (150 m) wide astride US Route 20 so their patrons could drink. For that, they deserved to remain on the superlatives list forevermore.